Category Archives: Travel

For The Sake of Even One

One of my favorite Buddhist sutras to read is the Mahayana sutra called the Golden Light Sutra. It was very popular in early-medieval Asian culture, but is less well known now outside of maybe Tibetan Buddhism. In particular my favorite chapter is chapter four, where the Bodhisattva Ruchiraketu speaks a long, long litany expressing his desire to help all beings, expressing regret for his past misdeeds, and finally expressing praise of all the Buddhas. In particular, I was reading again recently when this passage jumped out at me:

“Until I am capable of freeing them all
From countless oceans of suffering,
For ten million eons I shall strive
For the sake of even one sentient being.”

A very simple, but beautiful exposition of the Bodhisattva path to assist all beings, to not abandon them. If you get a chance, definitely read the first four chapters of the Golden Light Sutra, or at least chapters 3 (very short) and 4. They are very inspirational.

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. Not sure what a Bodhisattva is? Start here. :)

The Poetry of Li He

Hi Guys,

Lately, I’ve been reading a book on Chinese poetry from the late Tang Dynasty, which is one of the high points of Chinese history and culture.1 I wanted to share some poetry by a man named Li He (李賀, 790–816) which is written as “Li Ho” in some old sources.2 Li He was a short-lived poet who did at the age of 27, and having failed the Imperial Examinations. Nevertheless, he was a an influential poet who was then forgotten for centuries until the 1800’s when his poetry received a kind of revival.

One of my favorite poems is “On the Frontier”, translated by A.C. Graham:

A Tartar horn tugs at the north wind,
Thistle Gate shines whiter than the stream.
The sky swallows the road to Kokonor.
On the Great Wall, a thousand miles of moonlight.

The dew comes down, the banners drizzle,
Cold bronze rings the watches of the night.
The nomads’ armour meshes serpents’ scales.
Horses neigh, Evergreen Mound’s champed white.

In the still of autumn see the Pleiades.
Far out on the sands, danger in the furze.
North of their tents is surely the sky’s end
Where the sound of the river streams beyond the border.

According to Chinese tradition, when the Pleiades flickered, this was an omen of a barbarian invasion. Also according to the book, the Evergreen Mound was the grave site of a Chinese imperial concubine named Wang Zhao-jun who was betrothed to a Xiongnu (Tartar) warlord. It is said that grass always grows there on account of her tremendous beauty.

I’ll post more poetry soon. Enjoy!

1 It is almost a fascinating period to me because of the strong Buddhist influence, and its effect on other Asian countries at the time. Subsequent dynasties were also culturally brilliant, but had more influence from Neo-Confucianism, as did neighboring countries.

2 His name is pronounced like “Lee Huh”.

Happy Otsukimi Moon-Viewing 2015

Hi Everyone,

Otsukimi moon viewing children's art

This weekend there are a lot of Autumn-festivals going on across places like China, Korea and Japan. I’ve talked about Korean Chuseok before, so today I wanted to post about the Japanese festival of O-tsukimi (お月見). Compared to Chuseok or Chinese Autumn Festival, Otsukimi is a little more low-key, but fun for the family.

All three holidays occur traditionally on the full moon (the 15th day) of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. In Japanese this is known as chūshū no meigetsu (中秋の名月, “harvest moon”) and people traditionally have a night of moon-viewing, eating dango snacks and drinking saké.1 It’s a nice family event. The word otsukimi literally just means “moon-viewing”.

To celebrate Otsukimi this year, I wanted to share a poem from the ancient poetry anthology, the Kokin Wakashū:

秋の月 Aki no tsuki
山辺さやかに yamabe sayaka ni
照らせるは teraseru wa
落つるもみぢの otsuru momiji no
数を見よとか kazu wo miyo to ka

Which is translated as:

The autumn moon shines
brilliantly upon the
mountain range to show
us the very number of
the fallen colored leaves.

Happy Moon-Viewing/Autumn Festival Everyone!

P.S. My son, now almost 2 years old, helped decorate this picture above. According to Japanese legend, a rabbit lived on the moon, and pounded mochi until the moon was full. Then, the rabbit would eat it, until the new moon, and repeat the cycle. Little Guy helped decorate the white “dango”. :)

P.P.S. This page has helpful schedules for Otsukimi up through 2020.

1 Apparently there is also a lesser-known tradition, unique to Japan only that is celebrated on the 13th day of the 9th month of the lunar calendar. During this day, roasted chestnuts and edamame are offered along with dango. This is variably called nochi no tsuki 後の月, jūsanya (十三夜) and/or kuri meigestu (栗名月).

Ohigan and Crossing Over

Hi guys,

I had some free time recently and put together a small video about what Ohigan means and how it fits into Buddhist themes in general:

It is pretty short but talks about Shan-tao’s famous Parable of the Two Rivers among other things. Instead of just talking into a camera, I thought it would be more fun to use “slides”. It’s pretty low-tech, though.

Enjoy and Happy Ohigan!

The Thousand Character Poem

Hi guys,

Recently my family and I were watching another episode of the Korean family show Return of Superman (we watch every Sunday morning together), and in this episode the children stayed overnight at a traditional Korean, Confucian-style etiquette school called a seodang (서당, 書堂). According to Wikipedia, these villages existed in the Korean countryside during the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties so this is a historical recreation. I recommended watching the whole episode, it’s a great, but if you’re short on time, go to 26:50 or so. Also, click on “CC” in Youtube so you can see English subtitles.

During the first evening the children learn the first four characters of something called the “Thousand Character Classic”:

Cheon ji hyeon hwang

The romanization above is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese characters.

Anyhow, I got confused because I assumed this was a four-character yojijukugo phrase, but I couldn’t find much information or a clear explantion of what it meant. Literally it means “Heaven is black, the Earth is yellow.” But that doesn’t make sense, right? I even looked it up in Japanese, but it just kept telling me it was the first line of a the Thousand Year Classic.

It turns out the Thousand Year Classic (千字文) is a special poem composed in the short-lived Liang Dynasty in China for the purposes of learning Chinese characters.1 The poem has a strongly Confucian theme, but each character in the poem is used only once, and they are neatly divided into 250 lines, 4 characters each. The idea was that practicing writing out this poem would give a student a solid foundation in the basics of Chinese calligraphy. Pretty clever. By the Song Dynasty, it was part of a trio of books used for literacy along with the Three Character Classic and the 100 Family Surnames. These were known as the S&257;n Bǎi Qiān 三百千 or “Three-Hundred-Thousand”. These formed the core of Chinese literacy education up until the modern period.

Anyhow, it’s a fascinating example of Confucian education even in modern times. ;)

P.S. I thought the teacher at the seodang school was great. He was good at teaching kids the “traditional way”, but behind his fierce demeanor, it’s clear he likes kids a lot. :)

1 The poem is called cheonjamun (천자문) in Korean and senjimon in Japanese (same

Happy Day of the Chrysanthemum 2015

Hi Guys,

September 9th is the Day of the Chrysanthemum in traditional Japanese culture, one of the 5 sekku (節句) in calendar year.

To celebrate I wanted to share a couple poems about autumn chrysanthemums from the Kokin Wakashu poetry anthology. In the second a “Autumn” section, there are a surprising number of poems about chrysanthemums. Apparently it was a popular topic for courtiers in those days.

This poem, number 270 by Ki no Tomonori, captures the spirit of the Chrysanthemum Festival:

露ながら tsuyu nagara
折りてかざさん orite kazasan
菊の花 kiku no hana
老いせぬ秋の oisenu aki no
久しかるべく hisashikarubeku

Which Professor Rodd translates as:

To wear in my hair
I plucked a chrysanthemum
which dew still clinging
to it — oh may this present
autumn’s youth last forever.

And also poem 272, by Sugawara no Michizane (who later became the God of Learning):

秋風の akikaze no
吹上に立てる fukiage ni tateru
白菊は shiragiku wa
花かあらぬか hana ka aranu ka
浪の寄するか nami no yosuru ka

Which Professor Rodd translates as:

White chrysanthemums
standing in the rushing winds
on autumn beaches
at Fukiage — are they
blossoms, or are they breaking waves?

Have a fun, youthful Day of the Chrysanthemum and consider giving some of the ones you live. :)

Goodbye Summer

I found this delightful, anonymous poem from the Kokin Wakashu poetry anthology, number 172, that I wanted to share:

昨日こそ kinou koso
早苗取りしか sanae torishika
いつのまに itsu no ma ni
稲葉そよぎて inaba soyogite
秋風の吹く akikaze no fuku

Which is translated as:

“Only yesterday we filled the fields with young plants unaware of time and yet it has passed; rice leaves rustle in the autumn wind.”

For people in the US, have a restful Labor Day weekend!

Why the Atomic Bombing Still Matters 70 Years Later

This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital [Kyoto] or the new [Tokyo]. He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one.

–Diary entry from President Truman, July 25, 1945

August 6th and August 8th mark the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. It’s not something I’ve posted about for a long while (last post in 2012), but I was motivated to write about it for two reasons.1

The first reason was the childish reaction by American fans during the Women’s World Cup. The callous way people joked about the atomic bombing and compared it to a soccer match told me that such people did not appreciate the sheer destruction that resulted, and the tragedy of the incident. I was furious.

The second reason happened a few weeks ago. At our local Buddhist temple, we had a guest lecture by a reverend from one of our sister temples in Oregon. He told us a moving story, which he had heard from a minister in Nagasaki, Japan. But I’ll get back to that story in a minute.

As many of us know from history, the Empire of Japan still controlled large parts of Asia as late as July 1945:

A map of East Asia and the Western Pacific during World War II

…and that Japan and refused to even acknowledge the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, 1945 which ordered them to surrender. After fighting in Europe for so long, we were ready to finally defeat the Empire of Japan:

But the enemy was not to be taken lightly:


The military reasoned that the only way to get Japan to finally surrender was to shock them. From the minutes of the second meeting of the Target Committee Los Alamos which took place on May 10-11, 19452 the committee reasoned:

It was agreed that psychological factors in the target selection were of great importance. Two aspects of this are (1) obtaining the greatest psychological effect against Japan and (2) making the initial use sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognized when publicity on it is released.


It was agreed that for the initial use of the weapon any small and strictly military objective should be located in a much larger area subject to blast damage in order to avoid undue risks of the weapon being lost due to bad placing of the bomb.

A small, narrow target wasn’t enough because it would lack shock-value, but also because the atomic bomb cost billions of dollars in 1945 and if it failed due to bad placement, it would be a military disaster. Ultimately Hiroshima was selected:

This is an important army depot and port of embarkation in the middle of an urban industrial area. It is a good radar target and it is such a size that a large part of the city could be extensively damaged. There are adjacent hills which are likely to produce a focussing effect which would considerably increase the blast damage. Due to rivers it is not a good incendiary target. (Classified as an AA Target)

The rest, as we know, is history. Nagasaki was later added to the list, and became the second target.

Anyhow, back to the guest lecture from a few weeks ago. The visiting minister told us about another minister in Nagasaki. At that time, the minister was young and fresh from seminary, and was visiting a woman’s home to take part in a memorial service some time after the War.

The minister observed that the grieving woman had placed the rice in her Buddhist home altar incorrectly. Normally it’s placed in a small, raised bowl generically called a buppanki (仏飯器)3 which is intended to be an offering to the Buddha, and gesture of respect. You can see illustrations here. However, this woman had placed four rice balls (onigiri) placed in a dish in front. The priest was somewhat perplexed by this, and decided to gently correct her on etiquette for Buddhist altars.

He indirectly brought up the subject after the memorial service, and asked about the rice balls.

The woman explained that during World War II, she had been a mother of four little children. On August 8th, she had to go to the neighboring town to get some groceries, and she told the children they could go out and play, but they had to come back for lunch. She had made them onigiri rice-balls which they could enjoy when they came back home.

While she away in the next town, the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. By the time she returned home, the house had been destroyed and all four of her children were dead. They were sitting around the table together eating the onigiri she had prepared for them when they died.

…. and that’s why I think the atomic bombing still matters.

The military strategy and decision making that went into the atomic bombing wasn’t trivial. The war between Japan and the West was long, bitter and many people wanted to end it soon, but at the same time, a lot of careful analysis went into determining the targets, weighing the necessity of the atomic bomb, etc. In other words, it wasn’t an irrational decision.

However, military strategic planning cannot forsee everything. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were valuable military targets, but a lot of civilians lived there too, and many of them were not involved. The four children who died in Nagasaki had no military value. They were not the cartoonish “Japs” in propaganda posters; they were obedient children, enjoying a homemade lunch their mom had made, who died in nuclear fire.

The consequences of the decision to drop the atomic bomb were not limited to military-strategic ones; the consequences were much more broad and still felt many years later. The limits of such planning were true then, as much as it is now.

P.S. These World War II propaganda posters and many others are available at the National Archives, which is a great resource for historians. Some of the propaganda posters are pretty crass though. :-/

1 Didn’t want to detract from the other nuclear disaster, though: Castle Bravo and Bikini Atoll.

2 U.S. National Archives, Record Group 77, Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, Manhattan Engineer District, TS Manhattan Project File ’42-’46, folder 5D Selection of Targets, 2 Notes on Target Committee Meetings.

3 In Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, specifically the Nishi-Honganji branch (which covers much of the US temples), it may also be called a kuhandai (供飯台), but I need to verify that.

Going To School In Japan

Daughter in School in JapanHello,

My wife and kids have been in Japan for the past few weeks visiting relatives, and we decided to enroll our daughter (a.k.a. “Princess”) into the local elementary school for a week. We were unsure whether she would fit in because she’s never been to school in Japan, and although she’s fluent in Japanese, her reading/writing skills are a little bit behind. Thanks to distance-learning courses though, she has kept up with the Japanese education system well enough and she has had a great time in school so far.

Some half-Japanese kids living overseas might not have many opportunities to learn Japanese, so the school interviewed her a couple weeks early to determine her language skills, and we were relieved to see that she was fine. She wouldn’t need a translator or anything. Plus, she already had her own Randoseru (ランドセル) backpack her grandparents gave her a couple years ago.1

Elementary schools in Japan don’t have a cafeteria. Instead, children have meals provided in the class called kyūshoku (給食), which are usually nice quality meals. No tater-tots or pizza-bread. ;) Parents have to pay for these meals, of course. Since she’s only in school a week, we paid a week’s worth. Also, unlike older kids, elementary school kids do not have strict uniforms, but do wear things like yellow-hats or something to help identify them as a student at that school. In this photo my daughter isn’t wearing her hat though.

Also, we were worried that because she is different she might have problems interacting with other kids at school, but we are relieved that she made friends right away. The original photo here shows my daughter with two other little girls. They like to play afterschool and such. It makes us so happy to see this.

At one point, we had plans to live and work in Japan someday, but we were worried about keeping our kids in public Japanese schools.2 Although we abandoned these plans for a few reasons (space, cost of living, etc), it’s nice to know that it’s still an option. Now, kids like my daughter may have issues over the long-term though, such as this young lady, but at least we know it’s possible. Next year, we might let her attend school longer.

More importantly, we’re just happy to see our daughter having this special opportunity and making new friends in the process. :)

P.S. In case you’re wondering, Japanese schools start in April and ends in March or so. While there are seasonal breaks, there is no two month-long summer break like in the US. So, her school in the US is on summer break, but her school in Japan is not. Thanks to reader Tokyo5 for the clarification here. :)

1 She’s used it in American schools, but one problem is that American papers use the US Letter size (8½ x 11″) standard, while Japan uses A4 standard (8.27 × 11.7″). In practical terms, this means that her American papers and binders are a bit too wide for her backpack and get bent. So, we finally switched to an American backpack instead. We liked the Randoseru a lot, but we had no choice. :-/

Also, the color, as you can see, is light purple. Originally randoseru backpacks were red and black only, but lately there is more variety for kids to choose from. :)

2 International school students in Japan seem to be isolated and don’t always learn enough Japanese language and manners to successfully thrive as an adult. Plus they’re super-expensive.

Lafcadio Hearn’s “Kaidan” in 3 Minutes


Obon season is coming again in Japan, and this is a good time for ghost stories. Unlike the US, where Halloween and October are a popular time for ghost-stories, such stories are popular around late summer In Japan because Obon is a time when people pay respects to dead ancestors, etc.

In the past, I’ve told ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn, the famous Greco-Irish author who lived in Japan 120 years ago. Many, though not all, are from Hearn’s novel “Kwaidan”, which in modern Japanese is spelled as “Kaidan” (怪談). However, this year I am doing a bit of a twist. The YouTube videos below are stories from Kaidan, told in 3 minutes or less, by the Japan Internet comedy show Eagle Talon (鷹の爪).

These videos are only in Japanese, sorry, but they’re hilarious to watch. I’ve linked the original English-versions of the story too.

The first story is Rokuro-kubi, which I posted here. You can also click on the video here.

And here’s another story, Earless Hoichi, which I posted here. You can click on the video: